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IU research finds journalists placing renewed emphasis on ethics, watchdog function

For Immediate Release Nov 15, 2017

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. – Economic difficulties, social media proliferation and public attacks on media credibility have created a challenging environment for news organizations. But U.S. journalists, although their numbers are dwindling, appear to believe in their watchdog role as strongly as ever, according to the latest in a multi-decade series of studies by The Media School researchers at Indiana University.

David Weaver
David Weaver

The findings are the subject of a new book, “The American Journalist in the Digital Age: A Half-Century Perspective,” by emeritus professors David Weaver and Cleve Wilhoit and alumnus and former IU professor Lars Willnat. The book is the fourth in a series Weaver and Wilhoit began in the early 1980s, expanding on benchmark research conducted at the University of Illinois in 1971.

The survey finds journalists reject overwhelmingly the use of questionable reporting tactics, a result that Weaver and Wilhoit say is especially significant in the context of current attempts to portray legitimate journalism as “fake news.”

In previous studies, Wilhoit said, journalists demonstrated a surprising ambivalence toward avoiding unverified stories. But a new question in the latest study yielded more encouraging responses.

“When pressed toward deadline and asked about using a story with unverified elements, the journalists in our sample refused, overwhelmingly,” Wilhoit said. “Fake news may be a problem, but the mindset of the journalists we studied seems dead set against it.”

Cleve Wilhoit
Cleve Wilhoit

The data also suggest that, despite challenges to their legitimacy and pessimism about the future of news, public service ideals remain an important motivation for today’s journalists.

“The profession’s ‘voice’ may be smaller because of a diminished full-time workforce and distracted audiences, but the resolve to be a check on government has never been stronger,” Wilhoit said. “And the educational levels and depth of experience of journalists have never been greater.”

Seventy-eight percent of the journalists surveyed rated their “watchdog” role over government as “extremely important” – the highest percentage since the era of the Pentagon Papers in 1971.

Other key findings of the current study, for which data were gathered in 2013, are:

  • The number of full-time journalists decreased by 28 percent from 2002 to 2013, with nearly 33,000 journalists, including 25,000 daily newspaper journalists, leaving the profession.
  • The percentage of older journalists is increasing. In 2013, more than 56 percent of full-time journalists were 45 or older, compared with about 38 percent in 2002 and 22 percent in 1992.
  • The percentage of women in the field had held steady at 33 percent to 34 percent from 1982 to 2002, but rose slightly in 2013 to 37.5 percent.
  • The percentage of journalists representing ethnic and racial minorities increased from just over 14 percent in 2002 to just over 17 percent in 2013. However, that percentage is far out of sync with the overall population, of which racial and ethnic minorities constituted about 35 percent in 2012.
  • Just over 90 percent of full-time journalists have a college degree, compared with 58 percent when the study began in 1971. The authors note this percentage is in line with that in other professions.
  • About 75 percent of journalists use social media in their work, with 40 percent rating social media as “very important” or “extremely important” in their practice, and another 40 percent rating it as “somewhat important.”
  • The study maintains consistent questions, allowing the researchers to compare changing attitudes over time. Willnat said the data gathered over five decades is invaluable, and the study has inspired similar research around the world.

The researchers are generally optimistic about the future of the profession, based on the results of the latest survey. They say condemnation of the media by President Donald Trump and others presents an opportunity for journalists to demonstrate their importance to democracy.

“I think that the current criticisms of journalism will not last indefinitely,” Weaver said, “and I think there is growing recognition of how important professional journalists are to our society.”

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